Prepare to enter a twilight candlelit world. Soft music plays in the background. Everywhere is the sound of water. Dark clad figures move out of the shadows to guide you through cavernous spaces deep below the streets of London. Sounds like something out of a fantasy? Well, yes and no. And how appropriate that you find this mysterious space in the house that once belonged to the greatest Victorian writer of children’s fantasies, J M Barrie.
So, let’s go back to the beginning here. Aire Ancient Baths are new to London but they are already in several other locations dotted around the world including Barcelona, New York, Seville and Chicago. The concept is a simple one. Water, as was well known throughout the ancient world, is not only cleansing, it is deeply relaxing. And by reinventing the sort of experience a Roman might have considered the norm a couple of millennia ago, we stressed twenty-first century humans will feel its benefits, too.
The Aire concept includes not just water but, interestingly enough, architecture and they choose their locations with care. There’s a Mudejar palace in Seville, the ruins of an old souk in Almeria while, in Copenhagen, they have just opened in the old factory of the legendary beer company, Carlsberg Byen. In the case of London, they have most certainly picked a winner.
Robert Street is in the Adelphi area (between the Strand, Victoria Embankment Garden and Charing Cross) and this was the house where the author of Peter Pan lived. The whole area was built by the Adam brothers (Adelphi is Greek for siblings). Famed for their neoclassical designs, these buildings echoed those found on the eighteenth-century Grand Tour. And these designs feature not only in the lofty ceilings and pillars you can observe at street level. They reach far, far below.
So, two levels below the street itself you find huge cavernous spaces (it’s 14,000 square feet or 1300 square metres in all). Built of brick, there are wide arches and vaulted ceilings. And, of course, this is where you find the thermal baths. Aire has created in the depths of subterranean London a shadowy, watery pleasure dome. Inspired by Greek, Roman and Ottoman bathing rituals, you are guided through a recommended tour through various areas and temperatures – though in reality you can choose your own order and drift from place to place as you please. You won’t have it entirely to yourself but numbers are restricted so it all feels pretty private.
You start off with the warm water of the Tepidarium (36C) and follow on with the Caldarium (40C) and if you’re feeling brave enough you can take a quick plunge into the Frigidarium (14C). There’s a particularly steamy Vaporium (Turkish Bath) and the bath of a thousand jets (Balneum) for a hydro-massage. But my favourite – and this is a truly sensational experience – is the Flotarium. This is a long bath filled with salts that give you the same buoyancy as the Dead Sea. There are areas where you can rest your head and let your body lie still on the surface of the water. Best of all, though, is when you have the whole thing to yourself and you can drift up and down its entire length. Singularly relaxing, dreamy, just a little fantastical.
During your two-hour stay, you also have a massage. I was expecting this to come at the end but, in fact, it was less than halfway through when I went up several floors (there is a lift) to the massage level and changed out of my swimsuit and was taken into another candlelit room for a beautifully relaxing massage with therapist Denise. She carefully checked about what I needed in terms of pressure, areas to be worked on or avoided. There is a range of massages from 30 to 75 minutes in length and, afterwards, you return to the baths to finish your session. There was just one quibble at the back of my mind while I enjoyed my massage: the thought of getting back into a wet cozzie…
They have, however, thought of this, too. So at the end Denise first put my waterproof slippers back on and they were, to my surprise, warm and dry. She then handed me my (almost completely dry and certainly very warm) swimsuit which seemed to have been baked in an oven during the massage.
There are a number of other extras you can book including the Himalayan Salt Experience which includes a body scrub and a 60 minute massage with hot Himalayan salt stones. And the Wine Ritual in which you’re completely submerged in Spanish Ribera del Duero wine in a historic wooden tub! You have a grapeseed oil massage, too, and both have the antioxidant benefits of grapes and wine. (I have a sneaky feeling you may be offered a glass of the stuff to drink at the end, too.)
It’s not easy to find a tranquil haven in central London. This one is not just a particularly effective stress-reliever it is, too, an architectural gem, filled with scented candles, soft music and ornate pitted mirrors for a couple of hours of sheer escapism. Enjoy.
AIRE Ancient Baths, 2-3 Robert St, London WC2N 6RL. For more information, please visit www.beaire.com.